1

Occupational disease?

I admit it; this moment may count as my official coming out.

'Papers/document pile' by Niklas Bildhauer, 2008, CC BY-SA 2.0

‘Papers/document pile’ by Niklas Bildhauer, 2008, CC BY-SA 2.0

I am a perfectionist.

Many people suffer from this affliction: historians, but others as well.

Still, misconceptions about perfectionism abound, and I feel I must seize this occasion to set straight one particularly tenacious one.

We perfectionists do not need everything we do to be supergood.

All we want is to see it complete: perfectionism comes from the Latin perficio: to finish, to round off, to persevere until the work is done.

That is why I take so much time writing this history-chapter that I am currently working on. That is why I take an hour publishing a short Historian-at-Large post.

It’s not that it needs to be excellent (‘perfect’ is the confusing term often used).

It’s just that I hate loose

P.S.  Any grammatical or tyoing mistakes discovered in this text can safely be taken to be part of my behaviour therapy.

1

Give Us an Ordinary Bearded Lady

The Eurovision Song Contest of 2014 ended with the winner pleading for tolerance and respect. In her press conference, Conchita Wurst said that her winning the contest

showed me that people want to move on, to look to the future. We said something, we made a statement

Her performance was certainly brave and her victory real. What’s more, in the face of the homophobic backlash that has also been going on in Europe (but do these people watch the Song Contest?) and a song that was less than catchy (I left the couch with Dana International’s ‘Diva’ stuck in my head rather than ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’, even though I had just heard the latter twice) the audiences and juries of Europe have decided to make a statement indeed.

But was it simply a statement of progress? Did we indeed ‘move on’? Could Conchita Wurst not have performed her song a hundred years ago?

Wurst’s image reminded me of a character in a novel I read a long time ago: Mathilde, in Ted van Lieshout‘s masterly Raafs Reizend Theater.

Conchita Wurst with her hair down. Photo edited from the Salzburger Nachrichten.

Conchita Wurst with her hair down. Photo (by unknown photographer) edited from the Salzburger Nachrichten.

Mathilde with her hair up. Drawn by Ted van Lieshout for the cover of Raafs Reizend Theater (Amsterdam, 1986).

Mathilde earns her living as the Bearded Lady in a show. Precisely: a little bit like Conchita.

But we can go further back.

Nineteenth-century fairgrounds formed the workplace of many people with ‘curious’ bodies: from the ‘miniature man’ to the ‘fat boy’, from ‘Anita the Living Doll’ to ‘Lofty the Dutch Giant’. Relics of these and other performers can be found in the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield.

To what extent they were performing voluntarily must have varied. To what extent the features they were known for should be seen as disabilities or, quite the opposite, as skills, is an equally nuanced matter. But what is, I think, true for all of these people, is that they lived with certain bodies and minds every day of their lives: that to themselves they were their ordinary selves: ordinary selves which they had to cope with; ordinary selves which they might enjoy.

As soon as they got onto the stage, however, their bodies and/or minds became a spectacle, a curiosity, a matter of entertainment.

And that is, of course, also exactly what Conchita Wurst was at the Eurovision Song Contest: a stage performance.

The Bearded Lady as a stage performance is not new. Bodies that cross the borders of what is deemed normal are not new. To display them is not new.

If people want to truly ‘move on’, as Wurst hoped, they must be able to see Conchita’s beauty off stage as well as on stage. They should see her feminine beauty and her masculine beauty all at once, in the dressing-room as well as under the spotlights. And the same, of course, applies to the ‘midget’ and the ‘giant’.

I am not sure such a thing will ever happen, because if the extraordinary becomes ordinary, what will we watch on a Saturday night? We crave the spectacular alongside the normal.

But in as far as it concerns the ‘freaks’ I have been writing of – that is, in as far as it concerns real individuals who are turned into curiosities – it may be something worth striving for.

Conchita, I hope to meet you drinking an ordinary Eiskaffee on an everyday Vienna terrace this summer!


N.B. As far as I know, Raafs Reizend Theater has not yet been translated.

What was language for again?

The other day, I came across a nice example of the way many Europeans thought at the eve of the First World War.

At that time, Abraham Mossel was making a journey on foot through Europe together with three friends. They became known as de Wereldwandelaars, the Worldwalkers.

One of the studio photos the Worldwalkers sold on their way to finance their journey. This one can now be found in the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam, http://www.jhm.nl/collectie/fotos/40010100.

One of the studio photos three of the Worldwalkers sold on the road, to finance their journey. Abraham Mossel on the left. This postcard can now be found in the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam, http://www.jhm.nl/collectie/fotos/40010100 (the copyright may still lie with an unknown Hungarian photographer).

In 1912, they arrived in Austria-Hungary. Back then, the Austrian-Hungarian empire stretched over a wide territory and contained a huge variety of languages, each with its groups of native speakers. Mossel was amazed at the unwillingness of many people he encountered to communicate with other language communities. On their journey through the country, the Worldwalkers talked to many different people, from workers (‘arbeiders’) to fraternity-students. But all of them disappointed in their lack of cooperation.

Reusachtig arbeidsvermogen, dat voor gezamenlijk opwaarts werken benut had kunnen worden, gaat nu verloren in ‘t bevechten van elkaar.

(An enormous amount of labour power which could have been applied together to progressive work , is now lost in fighting each other.)

The Worldwalkers were Esperantists. They were learning and teaching Esperanto, a language constructed in the later nineteenth century for neutral communication between language communities. It embodied the hope (‘espero‘) for a greater mutual understanding between speakers of different languages, both at a local-community level and between states (perhaps even preventing wars?).

It was an encouraging fact that the Worldwalkers encountered quite a few Esperantists in the Austrian-Hungarian empire. But what was that?

In Weenen vonden we niet één enkele groote Esperanto-vereeniging, maar allerlei kleine groepjes, door elke nationaliteit slechts voor zichzelf gevormd. Als wij daar b.v. op een bijeenkomst van de Boheemsche Esperantisten waren, dan hoorden wij er nooit anders dan Esperanto of Boheemsch praten. De andere talen werden er veel te erg verfoeid.

(In Vienna we did not find one single big Esperanto-club, but all kinds of small groups, formed by each nationality just for itself. When we were there at for example a meeting of the Bohemian Esperantists, we heard speak nothing but Esperanto or Bohemian. The other languages were loathed much too much.)

Such was the situation everywhere in Europe just before war broke out. It made me wonder whether we have become any less exclusive.

 

source: A. Mossel, De Wereldwandelaars. Een zwerftocht door Europa (Amsterdam, 1917), 178-80.

 

 

Mimic women

Yesterday I heard a talk that made me wonder whether a much-used concept for men might not in some instances better apply to women.

Braia's wall stencil of a man with umbrella. Look how the ink really only pictures his costume (and some shadow in his face): his flesh blends with the wall and could be of any colour.

Braia’s wall stencil of a man with umbrella. Look how the ink really only pictures his costume (and some shadow in his face): his flesh blends with the wall and could be of any colour. N.B. this photo was taken by SliceofNYC (CC) on Flickr, but I do not know Braia’s own stance on the copyright of their work.

 

[A]lmost the same but not quite

[...]

Almost the same but not white

This comes from Homi Bhabha’s essay ‘Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’. Post-colonial writers like V.S. Naipaul and post-colonial theorists like Homi Bhabha have studied the phenomenon of the ‘mimic men': colonial administrators who would function as ‘translators’ between the colonisers and the colonised of the eighteenth- to twentieth-century world. ‘Indigenous’ men from India, for example, would go to school in London, clothe themselves in black suits, carry around umbrellas, read the Times in the rush-hour underground (this is how I picture it: it is not in Homi Bhabha’s essay)… and so they would come to mimic Englishmen, continuing this mimicry after their return to India. In spite of their transformation, however, there always remained ‘the difference between being English and being Anglicized':

Mimicry is [...] the sign of a double articulation; [1] a complex strategy of reform, regulation and discipline, which ‘appropriates’ the Other as it visualizes power. Mimicry is also [2] the sign of the inappropriate, however, a difference or recalcitrance which [...] poses an immanent threat to both ‘normalized’ knowledges and disciplinary powers.

This is what makes the phenomenon so important, historically. Although stimulated by the colonisers, it also scared them. The act of mimicking showed the emptiness of the English (French, Dutch, …) colonist’s own identity:

Mimicry conceals no presence or identity behind its mask: it is not what Usaire describes as ‘colonization-thingification’ behind which there stands the essence of the présence Africaine. The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority.

It undermined colonialism by

articulat[ing] those disturbances of cultural, racial and historical difference that menace the narcissistic demand of colonial authority. It is a desire that reverses ‘in part’ the colonial appropriation by now producing a partial vision of the colonizer’s presence; a gaze of otherness, that shares the acuity of the genealogical gaze which, as Foucault describes it, liberates marginal elements and shatters the unity of man’s being through which he extends his sovereignty.

In other words, the colonisers felt themselves being watched by their own image in the mirror.

Yesterday, I heard an inspiring talk by post-colonial historian Coll Thrush. It was about Indigenous travellers from North America, Australia and New Zealand visiting London, from the sixteenth century through to now. Their presence and their activitiy ‘indigenised’ the city. (As soon as his book will be finished, we will once again be better able to feel their presence in London, with the help of the walking-tours that he is creating for the book!)

Engraving of Pocahontas or Rebecca Rolfe by Simon van de Passe, 1616. Digital image from Wikimedia commons after a print in the British Museum, London.

Engraving of Pocahontas or Rebecca Rolfe by Simon van de Passe, 1616. Digital image from Wikimedia commons after a print in the British Museum, London.

Coll Thrush also showed images of many of these Indigenous visitors. Strikingly, many of the men he discussed were dressed in the Indigenous clothes they (in most cases) grew up with. In contrast, most of the women on these pictures wore British clothes (like Pocahontas on the picture above).

This reminded me of the widely-researched idea in sociolinguistics that women use more prestigious forms of speech than men. More often, they avoid slang and ‘working-class’ pronunciation, for example. (see footnote)

In my own work, I have seen Dorothy Wordsworth’s pride in applying the German that she had learnt in the German-speaking lands of central Europe, and so blending in. On the whole, both female and non-elite travellers of nineteenth-century Europe seem to talk the local language of the places they visited more than did male elite travellers.

Of course, men learnt languages as well, and women were often keen to affirm their difference from locals, rather than their similarity. But perhaps, in cases when the locals had a high social and political status, women had reason to want to look and sound like the locals – and perhaps they had somehow more reason than their male companions?

Of course, the women I have mentioned were no colonial sub-administrators, who had gone to school in the ‘centre’ of their empire (London, Paris, etc.). So they were not quite the familiar ‘mimic men’. But they played important roles in the translation of knowledge across cultures. Some of them already had a higher status than the people they visited, but many of them were in some way marginalised, and thus comparable to the mimic men. And all of them apparently had their reasons for wanting to blend in. They inevitably held up a mirror to the people they visited – though a distorted and sometimes a disturbing mirror, no doubt, in the eyes of the locals.

So perhaps it is fruitful to consider the existence of ‘mimic women’?

 

Note: See Peter Trudgill’s seminal article ‘Sex, Covert Prestige and Linguistic Change in the Urban British English of Norwich’ and Elizabeth Gordon’s ‘Sex, Speech, and Stereotypes: Why Women Use Prestige Speech Forms More than Men’, both published in the journal Language in Society.

LGBTIHQQBDSMXYZ History Month

In the UK, we have just concluded LGBT History Month. Ironically, if we can learn anything from this month – by doing some history – it is to take its name with a pinch of salt.

LGBT History started out with the G. That is, post-war narratives tend to centre on gay men: both negative attention and emancipatory activism, landmarked by the Stonewall riots in 1969, have mostly focused on male nightlife. As the gay liberation movement developed, gradually the L was added, for example in Lesbian and Gay History Month, celebrated in the USA since 1994. Later on, the ensemble was completed with a B and a T. Surely, this covers all bases, institutions like LGBT History Month seem to suggest.

But it would only be fair to continue adding letters: if we have a T for trans*-persons (transgenders, transexuals, cross-dressers…), why not add an I for intersex? After all, the T focuses on gender identity rather than sexual preference. If we include the lives and struggles of people who are crossing the gender binary, than surely we should include those of people who move somewhere in between? And why not also include a B, a D, an S and an M to include other kinds of marginalised practices? (see footnote 1) And how about the H that is sometimes included in southern Asia to represent hijras?

Hijra communities are in fact a good example of how culturally specific all these gender/sexual identities are. And because of their specificity, it is problematic to subsume them under the Euro-American post-Stonewall denominations used in global activism. Activists worldwide quite understandably employ these denominations in order to have a language to speak in, not least to reach financial donors in the west. But I fear that such names do not much help the cause of people suffering under post-colonial governments which picture, for example, homosexuality as an intrusive western ‘lifestyle’: see the new law that came into effect in Uganda only last week.

But nor are they always equally appropriate within ‘western’ history itself. In Plato’s Symposion, for example, two different characters describe men who love men as being more masculine (as well as being more intellectually creative) than men who love women. The latter are the androgynous ones. This differs markedly from popular perceptions about gay men nowadays. (footnote 2) A quite different example are the ‘sodomites’ we encounter in high-medieval penitentials. A ‘sodomite’ could be a man who had had anal sex with a woman, or with a man: method mattered more than gender. And how about the category of medieval mystics who, in their erotic poems, desired nothing more than a spiritual unity with Christ? If we want to take this cultural and historical diversity into account, we might end up with a whole lot of identity categories.

Some have rightly questioned this explosion of compartmentalised identifications and call themselves ‘queer’. Yet in many quarters this has only led to the addition of an extra letter to the alphabet. This leaves the English-speaking world with a host of LGBTIQQ societies. That last Q, of course, stands for ‘questioning’.

Which is perhaps what we should be doing. For to narrow down our adolescence to the choosing of a letter (including an S for ‘straight’) can surely not be the most rebellious thing.

And yet, I would not want LGBT History Month to go away.

A question that has occasionally been asked to me since becoming involved in this topic, is why gay people feel the need to flock together in special bars and parades – which implies the question: why is there a separate LGBT History Month?

The answer may be obvious to anyone with alternative tastes in anything: you need such places to find what you are looking for (in this case it may be anything from conversation to romance or sex) and feel normal (need I say: in a special way). It is the burden of the marginalised that their tastes are not taken for granted and need to be specially signaled. In that sense, a gay bar does not differ much from a Comic Con.

Café ‘t Mandje in Amsterdam: meeting-place for same-sex lovers between 1927 and 2007; now reconstructed in the Amsterdam Museum, who provided the photo.

Café ‘t Mandje in Amsterdam: meeting-place for same-sex lovers between 1927 and 2007; now reconstructed in the Amsterdam Museum, who provided the photo.

These places thus fulfil an important function, as does this History Month. But we should not forget that this function is largely political. By forming a group and setting themselves visibly apart, people command recognition for their existence. What is more, people find safety and comfort in group identities. However diverse sexual and gender behaviours and feelings may be, the fact that people classify themselves and others is only human. (footnote 3) These reasons make people identify as, for example, ‘Russian’ or ‘taxi-driver’, just as they may make them assume gender identities like ‘woman’ or ‘drag queen’; or sexual identities such as ‘dyke’ or ‘married’ – although soon this will no longer be an exclusively heterosexual identity in England, too: the first same-sex weddings are to take place in March.

The point, however, is that if we limit ourselves to such categories, we limit our imagination. These categories create antagonisms and make it harder to empathise with others. Let this History Month be an opportunity, not just for people who call themselves LGBT, but for everyone, to learn from historical diversity and reconsider their own names and alliances.

Footnotes

(1) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has raised the question why gender should be the decisive dimension of our sexual identities (Epistemology of the closet (Berkeley, 1990), 8-9). It may have something to do with the prominence western cultures give to romantic ties, I suspect.

(2) In more formal terms, ideas about what sexual morphologies go with what sexual subjectivities, are constantly changing. These terms are taken from David Halperin’s famous essay on “Forgetting Foucault” (in the journal Representations, 1998).

(3) The pre-modern existence of sexual identities was one of the conclusions of a piece of research I did a while ago. It contradicts the more usual interpretations of Foucault’s history of nineteenth-century sexuality as describing the origins of sexual identity per se. A recent manifestation of this misunderstanding occurred in a Volkskrant interview with a medical doctor. If the newspaper quotes him correctly, he thinks that something only exists if you have a word for it. What is more, he seems to be unfamiliar with any such words that do exist, but outside the western medical profession, which popularised the word ‘homosexuality’ in the nineteenth century – as the name of a disease. Everyday words that people use to describe themselves or their desires, are ignored. Thus, these people and their desires themselves are ignored. In a typical twist, the opinion of those in power, such as presidents, are taken to represent the ‘true’ culture and heritage of a country like Uganda. While pretending to a liberating cultural relativism, such texts actually silence those people that are at this moment in the greatest need of having their say.

Dirt or development?

British air is too dirty, the newspapers reported this week.

But who decides what is dirty? As a historian, I see norms of cleanliness shift over the centuries. What is more, I see some of the roots of current norms going back to the nineteenth century or beyond.

According to anthropologist Mary Douglas, dirt is ‘matter out of place’.

In the case of British air, that matter is nitrogen dioxide. And it is out of place because it should not leave car exhausts in such great quantities as it does, building up in our cities. At least, that is the opinion of the European Commissioner for the Environment, who is about to sue Britain for breaching EU legislation. Environmental NGOs like Client Earth agree. They even have the UK Supreme Court on their side.

Yet local and national governments are failing to implement the legislation. Clearly, their norms and priorities differ from those who want to see British cities cleaned up immediately.

Charles Marville, Parisian rue des Francs-bourgeois-Saint-Marcel, mid-19th-century. Digital version from Paris Secret et Insolite

Picturesque or dirty? Charles Marville photographed the Parisian rue des Francs-bourgeois-Saint-Marcel in the course of Haussmann’s improvement project of the mid-19th-century. Digital version from Paris Secret et Insolite

In my work, I find similar conflicts over what matter is ‘out of place’. Take the case of early-nineteenth-century Dutch travellers. The place where they lived contained hardly any steam engines as yet, and little industry that might blow out polluting particles, when compared to Belgium or Britain in the same period. The Dutch economy ran largely on cows and sailing ships: two things which, although involving a certain amount of smelliness, did not usually concentrate in the streets of their cities.

So when Dutch travellers visited foreign towns, they were not so concerned with smoking chimneys. What they found dirty instead were unpaved roads, dust and mud. Indoors, matters were even worse as they encountered stuffy rooms which occupants kept the windows shut while smoking pipes or even keeping animals in the same space. Where other people felt snug and homy, these travellers felt sick.

On a typical stroll through an Italian city, they complained about streets being ‘[n]arrow, close, irregular, steep and crooked [...] The heat [...] was unbearable [...] The smell, fuming towards me from the black, dirty, six-story high houses, I found insufferable [and I found] grimy rags [hung out] to dry’.

All in all, these travellers associated dirt with a lack of civilisation. In the undeveloped state in which much of Europe remained, according to these Netherlanders, matter had not yet found its way to the right places. Medieval alleys had not yet been straightened out, gutters not been cleared, ventilation shafts in houses not yet constructed. Nothing moved, everything was stuck.

This nineteenth-century ideal of movement and progress is oddly reminiscent of the behaviour of many governments today. Still thinking in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century terms, they like to see things move. They focus narrowly on economic growth, but do not invest in infrastructures that would make this growth a (literally) healthy one.

Of course, this has also much to do with the historical growth of an energy and transport sector that depends heavily on internal-combustion engines. This sector, and those parts of western governments that rely on it financially, have become entrenched: they resist the investments necessary for a shift towards different forms of energy storage (such as water reservoirs) and more efficient forms of releasing this energy (such as public rail transport).

Their public expressions of what is dirty and what is not have by now become pretty old-fashioned. If we follow their norms, the nitrogen dioxide in our streets is not matter out of place at all. It is precisely where it should be, and the sign of a roaring economy.

This text was published earlier on University of Sheffield’s History Matters, in slightly altered form.